(Beyond Pesticides) A plan announced earlier this month by Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, to relocate one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) top research office — the Economic Research Service — into the Office of the Secretary, a political branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is raising alarm from some scientists. Concerned researchers see the move as a way to cut funding to important projects around climate change and nutrition, among others.

The plan by the Trump administration to overhaul two federal offices overseeing food and agriculture research, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and move them out of Washington by the end of 2019 is being cited by leading agricultural scientists and economists as a ploy to stifle important federal research. Further, no economic or other analysis has been provided to show that such a move would be beneficial.

The Trump administration has targeted ERS for severe funding cuts and says streamlining USDA’s operations would save taxpayer money and help the agency recruit and retain top staff, but the move will only serve to isolate the agency from key colleagues and resources concentrated in the capital. This can weaken ERS research by making it more difficult for agency economists to consult with other federal research offices, lawmakers, and federal policy groups. More troubling, is that relocating ERS to the Office of the Secretary could compromise and politicize federal research responsible for nonpartisan food and agricultural economic analysis; an issue the office’s current placement was designed to prevent.

In the August announcement, it noted that new locations have yet to be determined, and that ERS and NIFA may be co-located when their new homes are found. ERS and NIFA account for just over half of the $2.5 billion Congress budgeted for agricultural research in 2018. ERS employs 300 people in the D.C. region, according to the USDA. NIFA, which funds competitive research grants at U.S. universities, employs a D.C. staff of roughly 400.

ERS research covers a range of issues, studying trends and emerging issues in agriculture, food, the environment, and rural America from crop yields and food prices to farm conservation practices, rural employment, and nutrition assistance. Key reports serve those who make or influence public policy decisions around farm and food and include Congress, other federal agencies, and state and local governments. For instance, recent ERS findings have concluded that trade liberalization benefits U.S. farmers, despite the Trump administration contrary stance.

According to The New York Times, Scott Swinton, PhD, an agricultural economist at Michigan State and the former president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, said the reorganization may be a pretext for gutting federal agricultural research. Many top economists and scientists will resign, he predicts, rather than leave the D.C. area.

“What really troubles me is that the administration proposed cutting the ERS budget by 48 percent and laying off half its staff six months ago,” Dr. Swinton said. “My fear is that now this plan will lead to a high number of resignations — and the administration will say, ‘Well, we don’t need as much money now,’ rather than build that capacity again.”

Sonny Ramaswamy, PhD, who served as NIFA’s administrator until his six-year term expired in May, said that the new Agriculture Secretary refused to allow him to fill open positions at NIFA, even as other departments added employees. At one point, Dr. Ramaswamy also met with congressional staff members to argue against proposed cuts to his department’s budget, although he says he remained on good terms with USDA’s political appointees.

“I don’t have an ax to grind here,” Dr. Ramaswamy said. “I’m just concerned that they’re taking this agency back decades at a time when we want them thinking about compelling scientific challenges.”

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Trump Nominates Pesticides Company Exec for Chief Scientist at USDA